One of the pillars of belief for Muslims is faith in the books of the previous prophets. But the Muslim will not find any trace of these books in the Qur’ān without referring back to the Jewish Torah and Christian Gospels. Ḥamūd Ḥamūd in his article In the Footsteps of Wansbrough notes that the Qur’ān is not a historical source to be trusted, nor can the works in the Islamic heritage which have multiplied in step with the evolution of the Islamic community or society, be considered reliable sources for the contemporary scholar investigating the Qur’ānic event and its context. 

BY NAFI SHABOU


THIS IS THE CONCLUSION that Gerald Hawting comes to in his book The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam.[i] Firstly, Hawting (as Wansbrough) acknowledges that the Qur’ān is the result of additions and compilations of various materials. The Islamic tradition came about as a result of the evolution of Muslim societies, their beliefs and rituals, as they viewed or at least imagined it, and was put together from various sources. It is thus in no sense correct to see it as reflecting a historical reality. The heritage books in this respect are questionable.

Secondly, nothing that the Qur’ān refers to in the life of Arabs (their religions, traditions, and even certain names) refers back to any historical reality, since the Qur’ānic text itself is not a historical text and does not contain any historical references.

Thirdly: many indications lead us to believe that the Qur’ān, the Hadith, the Arabic language, Arabic palaeography, early manuscripts and religious conceptions cannot be regarded as a discourse issuing from the Hijaz. This is because such a discourse requires it to have emerged in an arena with a cultural, linguistic and religious heritage not compatible with a sparsely populated nomadic environment. Therefore, the contents of the Qur’ān do not reflect the conditions of the Arabian Peninsula, but rather the cultures of the Middle East to the north of the Arabian peninsula. Even so this does not preclude the existence of strong links with the regions of the Hijaz region.

Nothing that the Qur’ān refers to in the life of Arabs refers back to any historical reality

As the writer Nādir Qurayṭ says in his article The Dark Beginnings of Islam

At the end of the 19th century, Karl Fuller and Rudolf Geyer attempted to examine the editorial history of the Qur’ān and reconstruct some of the poetic passages in the short rhymed sūras. … Lüling followed this up in 1970s, assuming that these sūras were liturgical prayers and a literary product of Syrian Christianity.[ii]

Based on the work of researchers (Günter Lüling and Christopher Luxenberg), Nādir Qurayṭ added the following:

The Islamic biblical heritage has become, in the eyes of some, simply religious literature and not history in the scientific sense of historiography.

He cites the Qur’ānic manuscripts that have been discovered (such as the San‘ā’ manuscript): 

The existence of an ancient Qur’ānic text whose features were later blurred and its content transformed to give a new coherence to the religious-historical meaning… an unbroken succession in the Qur’ānic text and related but sometimes contradictory traditions – indicates the work of later pens. Ancient manuscripts demonstrate the evolution of the Qur’ānic text and the existence of very late evidence for the Prophet (Muḥammad). In addition, the complementary story of Islamic expansion was written down by Muslims in the ninth century (that is, about 150-200 years later). All Islamic texts (including, of course, additions and omissions in the Qur’ānic texts) may be suspected of having been retroactively inserted in later times. That is, the first two centuries remain shrouded in historical darkness.

Rudiger Bowen the German Orientalist, researcher and expert on the rules of historical Qur’ānic writing – who studied the San‘ā’ manuscripts – says the following: 

My idea is that the Qur’ān is a kind of cocktail made from mixing together texts that were not all of them understood even in the time of Muḥammad. A number of them may have been a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic tradition there is a huge amount of contradictory information, including an important Christian class, and one can create from this information a rival history to Islam if one wished to.

The Qur’ān as we know it does not date back to the time of Muḥammad

Bowen’s research supports the conclusion of John Wansbrough and his disciples that the Qur’ān as we know it does not date back to the time of Muḥammad. The time distance between the historical period in which the Qur’ān was revealed and the period of writing it down and copying it has not been taken into account.[iii]

The ancient manuscripts of the Qur’ānic text seem devoid of vocalisation and diacritical dots, and it is difficult today to determine the time context in which the diacritical dots were added by which the letter b could be distinguished from or w and be pronounced differently. The same is true between the letters a and and their late appearance in orthodography. Luxenberg argues that:

We do not know precisely how and in what specific circumstances the laws of vocalisation were established due to the contradictory evidence in this field.

In his book The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran : A contribution to the decoding of the language of the Koran[iv]Christoph Luxenberg undertakes a historical and comparative philological research on the development of the language in which the Qur’ān was written historically, by comparing it with the Syriac language.

Christoph Luxenberg’s theory is that the contents of critical sections of the Qur’ān have been pervasively misread by successive generations of reciters due to a comprehensive but erroneous reliance on a belief that classical Arabic is the basis of the language of the Qur’ān.

A linguistic analysis of the text, however, indicates that the Syrian Aramaic language which predominated up until the seventh century provides a stronger basis for the origin of words in the Qur’ān and their meaning. Interestingly, remains of early written Arabic language indicate that it lacked signs for vowels and the ي – و – ا   letters used as vowels, which when added later would enable us to distinguish the meaning. For example, the letters ي – ن – ت – ب were inadequately represented and Arabic writing was therefore vulnerable to misinterpretation. 

The readings of the muṣḥaf were collected together from Syriac texts that were used in daily and weekly liturgical rituals

Diacritic marks were added at the beginning of the eighth century by order of al-Ḥajjāj ibn Yūsuf, the governor of Iraq (694–714 AD). Speaking in an interview Luxenberg stated that

The date of this Qur’ān (referring to the San‘ā’ manuscript) can be pinpointed with great accuracy to the time of Al-Walīd ibn ‘Abd al-Malik (705-715) AD, and the oldest copy of the Qur’ān in the world was written approximately 70 years after Muḥammad’s death (632 AD according to Islamic tradition).

Muḥammad Āl ‘Īsā, in his work The History of Early Islam, says:

From the biography of Muḥammad, we know that the Qur’ān was not composed until after his death. There is no indication in any reference whatsoever that such a book (the Qur’ān) was completed during the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik or that it had taken a final form.

Apparently, the readings of the muṣḥaf were collected together from Syriac texts that were used in daily and weekly liturgical rituals. The purpose of these Syriac writings was to refute the Byzantine Christological doctrine on Christ and to criticize the Creed approved at the Council of Nicaea (325) AD. They were also intended to prove and confirm the Mosaic doctrine of monotheism and the divine law. In the same way that the Emperor in the West was the patron of the Western Church, ‘Abd al-Malik became the head of the Eastern Christian Church (which would later become Islam during the ‘Abbasid era). ‘Abd al-Malik was very interested and highly committed to making this Christianity compatible with, and indeed submissive to, the Mosaic law in terms of pure monotheism and adherence to the rituals of that law such as circumcision, ablution, prayer, fasting and zakāh. 

The verses inscribed on the Dome of the Rock were originally intended to combat Byzantine Christology

The verses inscribed on the Dome of the Rock were originally intended to combat Byzantine Christology in terms of the nature of Christ, deny his divinity and his relationship as a son to God, and convert people to the Naṣārā doctrine on the human nature of Jesus Christ. These verses give testimony to monotheism but for a different purpose. As a translation of a Syriac text this was originally known to the Christians of the Levant, and it appears to be testament to current Islamic monotheism. But a careful review of the text yields a different meaning.

That is, the inscriptions discovered on the Dome of the Rock (which would later turn into Qur’ānic verses and the Muslim shahāda-testimony of the faith during the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān) confirm that they were written not to confirm the Islamic shahāda but rather to defend the Judeo-Arab Christian doctrine that emphasized that the Messiah was the Messenger of God and the Servant of God (‘Abdullah’), and not the Son of God as Christians believe.

Dr. Edward Calley presented a thesis that 40 verses were added to the Qur’ān after the death of the Prophet and that the name Muḥammad was also later added to the Qur’ān 4 times. He maintains that Sūrat al-Isrā’, especially the first verse, was added following the death of ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān because construction of the Dome of the Rock Mosque began during his reign and was completed during the reign of Walīd ibn ‘Abd al-Malik.

Canon Sell says in his work The Historical Development of the Qur’ān:

The arrangement of the Sūras, of chapters in the Qur’ān, is not chronological sequence. The longest Sūras are placed first in the book. Thus, to take the Qur’ān and read it straight through throws no light on the life and work of the Prophet, but simply bewilders the reader. [v]

Muḥammad maintained ‘that the Qur’ān was the one special miracle which attested his mission.’[vi]

The Qur’ān was not written by one person, but by several people over long periods of time. This is confirmed by modern research, and even the Islamic heritage testifies to this fact, but in a different way. The historical texts of the Qur’ān need to be scientifically analysed though conducting deep research and study.

The Qur’ān was not written by one person, but by several people over long periods of time

Western studies and research have focused particularly on the Qur’ān. This study presents many challenges and represents a final and complete break with the Islamic heritage. This is because the Islamic heritage is a literary, undated heritage that was added 150-200 years after Muḥammad, the messenger of the Muslims. It is full of myths and unscientific facts that cannot be relied upon when searching for the historicity of the Qur’ān, or even the truth of the Prophet Muḥammad, in order to distinguish between what is myth and what is history. We also know that the Qur’ānic text underwent additions and much was deleted from it after Muḥammad’s death. Nor do we have an exact date for when the process of writing or recording it began, or for the conflicts that took place among Muḥammad’s followers or their forgetting many parts of the Qur’ān. This is in addition to the fact that the Qur’ān bears features of the cultures of his time, including pagan or Judaeo-Christian cultures.

Suggested Reading

When did Islam emerge?

In the end, the books of the Islamic heritage are on the one hand nothing more than the product of the Arabs’ mental development as it came into contact with the cultures of the countries they occupied, and on the other hand an attempt to give ‘meaning’ to the Qur’ān and its interpretation, rather than providing any historical picture to the Qur’ānic context.

Researchers therefore have to re-read the Qur’ānic texts because of the development of Islamic societies, their beliefs and rituals, which derive from various sources. It is not possible to rely on Islamic heritage books, since these are suspect for their being composed about 150 years after the Prophet’s migration.


[i] See this work in the Almuslih Library here.

[ii] Nādir Qurayṭ, البدايات المظلمة للأسلام ج1/2 .

[iii] Robert G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It. A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writing On Early Islam, Princeton, The Darwin Press, 1977. See this work in the Almuslih Library here.

[iv] See in the Almuslih Library The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran : A contribution to the decoding of the language of the Koran .

[v] Canon Sell, The Historical Development of the Qur’ān, 3rd Ed. Madras 1909, p.1. See this work in the Almuslih Library here.

[vi] Canon Sell, Op. cit., p.22.

Main image: The San‘ā’ manuscript (c. 670 AD), the only known extant copy of the Qur’ān from a textual tradition other than the standard ‘Uthmanic tradition. It is a palimpsest (an erased and re-used parchment) with both the upper and lower text is written in what has been identified as the Hijazi script. The upper text conforms to the standard ‘Uthmanic Qur’ān and has been dated to between the 7th and 8th centuries, whereas the undertext is believed to have been written between 632-669 AD and contains many variants to the standard text. The manuscripts show how the Qur’ānic text developed and researchers have concluded that the original manuscript is much more likely to be from before the standardisation, because of the variations in the text and the size of the document.

Read Part One of this essay here

Read Part Two of this essay here

Read Part Three of this essay here

Read Part Four of this essay here